HANALEI — Longtime Hanalei resident and big-wave charger Rick Proczka took off on his last wave at his beloved Hanalei Bay surf spot sometime around 5 p.m. on Feb. 9. The unlikely drowning of such an accomplished and fit waterman, even at 64 years old, sent shock waves throughout Kaua‘i’s surfing community.
“He was one of the best surfers in Hanalei; he was the last guy on the planet you’d think would drown out there,” said Lenny Foster, adding that whenever the waves were big and Proczka would show up on the line up, everyone would suddenly feel more comfortable.
After noticing Proczka’s yellow gun floating, his friends searched for him everywhere. At about 5:43 p.m., the Kaua‘i Fire Department was notified, but it wasn’t until 6:30 p.m. that KFD’s rescue helicopter spotted Proczka’s body floating about 200 yards offshore.
Proczka left behind a legion of fans and friends, mostly because of his friendly and caring personality.
“He was like my hero, because he always made me feel like a hero,” said David Ahrens, one of Proczka’s closest friends.
Foster said Proczka’s death is a “great loss” to Hanalei, and left a “huge hole” in the North Shore community. They first met in 1975, and became friends and surfing buddies since then,
“He was just a really good guy,” Foster said.
Proczka’s oldest son, Andrzej Proczka, said his father was a “very loving, family-oriented” guy.
Andrzej and his younger brother, John-Jozef, grew up at Pine Trees, a popular beach break in Hanalei. Andrzej said when he was very little, his father would put him in front of his surfboard and they would ride waves together.
“He had this love for the water,” Andrzej said of his father.
When Andrzej was 12 years old, his parents split, and he and John-Jozef moved to New York with and their mother, Carolyn Roberts. Andrzej said it would’ve been really easy for his father to disconnect from his sons and have a fresh start in life. But Proczka stayed in contact with them and made sure they knew he loved them.
Every time his sons would come to Kaua‘i to visit, Proczka would take them out surfing. To make sure his children would catch waves, he would drop in on other surfers and block them, so the children could take off on the shoulder, Andrzej said.
“He loved big waves. He would go out when it was really big and stay until dark,” Andrzej said. “He would drive both our mom and stepmom pretty mad.”
Proczka loved the water so much that he would be out in the surf even if it was tiny and the water was freezing. Ahrens said he once went on a surf trip to Mexico with Proczka and a few other friends. When they first got there, the waves were 1 foot, the water was 54 degrees Fahrenheit and the beach was lined up with jellyfish. But Proczka convinced everyone to go out.
Proczka’s parents were born in Poland. During World War II, the Russians took them to Siberia to a work camp, which was similar to a concentration camp, according to Andrzej. When the war was over, Proczka’s parents moved to England, where they raised him and his two sister. When Proczka was 11 years old, his parents moved to Southern California.
Perhaps because his family went through so many hardships, Proczka turned out to be so humble, Foster said.
Ahrens grew up in Montebello, Calif., where he attended an all-boys Catholic school. Proczka, who was a couple years older than Ahrens, attended the same school. They both surfed, although the closest beach was one hour away. They joined the town’s surf club, and struck a lifetime friendship.
Foster said Proczka visited Hawai‘i for the first time, and got a taste of the Hawaiian surf, when he was 18 years old. Next year, he moved to Hawai‘i permanently.
That was in 1969, according to Ahrens, who moved with Proczka to Pa‘ia in Maui. Together, they rented a beach house and surfed all the time. In 1971, Ahrens and Proczka moved to Hanalei.
Back in those days, Kaua‘i’s North Shore was like the “Wild Wild West,” said Ahrens, who only lasted a couple of years there, and decided to move away. But Proczka stayed in Hanalei.
From 1974 to 1980, Ahrens lived on O‘ahu’s North Shore, where he worked making surfboards. Proczka would go there all the time. Ahrens eventually moved to San Clemente, Calif., but kept in contact with Proczka his whole life. He said they would talk on the phone at least five times a week.
Devout Jehovah’s Witness
Foster, who became a Jehovah’s Witness in 1985, said Proczka joined the religion in the mid 1990s.
Andrzej said his father was a devout Jehovah’s Witness, and always shared his faith with him and John-Jozef, but was never pushy.
Proczka didn’t just go to church, he lived by the value of his faith, too, Andrzej said.
“He really, really went out of his way to make sure everybody knew he cared about them,” he said.
Proczka would always take the time to start conversations with strangers, and carefully listen to them, Andrzej said.
Despite living so far away from the Mainland, he was still really close to his two sisters and his parents, Foster said.
Ahrens said someone once asked, “What if everybody in the water was like him?”
Proczka’s services were held at The Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witness in Kilauea Saturday at 4 p.m.
Foster said on Friday he was preparing a speech for Proczka’s services. He said he talked to so many people the whole day, gathering history on Proczka, that he realized how much an impact he made in the community.
“I’ve never seen any effect like this in a long time,” he said of the community’s response to Proczka’s death, adding that this is just a testament to what kind of person Proczka was.
Proczka was also known as “Waimea Rick.” Ahrens said there are two versions that explain how he got the nickname.
One was because O‘ahu’s Waimea Bay used to be the ultimate big wave spot, and since Proczka would usually take off on the largest waves, the nickname stuck, he said. The other version was because every time Proczka would come back from a trip to O‘ahu, he would talk endlessly about surfing Waimea, so his friends gave him the nickname.
Whatever the reason is, no one can dispute the man just loved to surf. He would get at least five new surfboards each year. Ahrens said he doesn’t know for sure how many surfboards Proczka owned, but it could be anywhere between 50 to 100 boards. Some of his best friends were some of the finest surfboard shapers on the island, such as Mark Sausen (Papa Sau), Dick Brewer and Billy Hamilton.
Those who missed saying good-bye to Proczka, or sharing a last wave with him, still have an opportunity to make up for it. There will be a paddle out in honor of Proczka at Hanalei Pier on Tuesday at 4:30 p.m.
• Léo Azambuja, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 252) or lazambuja@ thegardenisland.com.